Sentences fizz like champagne bubbles in Marcus Gardley’s “Dance of the Holy Ghosts: A Play on Memory” at Baltimore’s Center Stage. It’s all about a blustery, isolated 72-year-old bluesman named Oscar, a proud blowhard prone to such declarations as “I was a player before there was even a game,” and “I built my own house out of canned goods and chicken wire.”
This is a tall tale, a folk tale, a memory play that Gardley half made up based on scraps of his family history. The lyrical prose sparkles self-consciously as a young man named Marcus tracks down Oscar, his grandfather, to let him know that his daughter, Marcus’s mother, is dead.
Pop! go the densely poetic sentences. But after they burst, there isn’t much play to savor. “Dance” flits across time as Gardley cobbles together a character sketch of a deeply flawed man, but the slow-moving play feels strangled by stereotypes as we gradually learn that Oscar (a) is a bluesman, (b) neglects his family for his music and (c) shot a man who messed around with his wife.
With nowhere new to go, Gardley labors to create an original voice. (Gardley’s preoccupation with fancy language similarly hobbled his “every tongue confess” a few seasons ago at Arena Stage.) The conflict is carried almost entirely within Oscar, and Michael Genet’s colorful, defiant performance is compelling enough to make you believe something is happening, even when almost nothing is. Genet is a solid presence — feet planted, voice lifted — and his earthiness and core conviction almost establish a firewall protecting against preposterous prose.
The supporting actors follow suit in roles with far less heft. Denise Burse is Oscar’s appealing and then put-upon wife, making what she can of the anti-climactic standoff with Oscar. (“Is your heart somewhere else?” goes a pivotal, terribly plaintive line.) Chandra Thomas is Oscar’s put-upon, long-estranged daughter, and Sheldon Best is Marcus, a role that is mildly enjoyable in its grown-up mode as the gay Marcus tartly rebukes the irresponsible and homophobic Oscar. When Marcus is a young kid ranting about a girl who breaks one of his precious Crayolas, though, the play seems almost unbearably off the rails.
The production of director Kwame Kwei-Armah sets the stage for moody reflections with a shadowy, two-level set by Neil Patel that Michelle Habeck lights in warm tones. But this environment remains vague, and even the LP records piled in corners don’t signify much. The play features a couple of brief musical interludes, but it doesn’t seem like Gardley is sure about how much blues to include.
The play has been compared to works by August Wilson, but that’s not fair to Gardley or to audiences primed to expect Wilsonian scope and wallop. Gardley is plainly interested in fashioning something exaggerated, folkloric and magical, but the result is a florid bauble that doesn’t feel tethered to any kind of reality at all. It’s as diffuse as a ghost.
by Marcus Gardley. Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah. Costumes, David Burdick; sound design and musical arrangements, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. With Jasmine Carmichael and Doug Eskew. About two hours. Through Nov. 17 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. Tickets $10-$59. Call 410-332-0033 or visit www.centerstage.org.